Luis Fernando Lopez of Colombia celebrates winning bronze in the 20km race walk at the 2011 IAAF World Championships (Getty Images) © Copyright
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After Daegu medal, López walks into Colombian history – next stop, London

The morning of 28 August 2011 will be remembered forever in the history of Colombian athletics. That day, in the streets of Daegu, Luis Fernando López, a race walker born in Pasto, Nariño, on 3 June 1979, gave the South American nation its first-ever medal at the IAAF World Championships when he crossed the line in third place at the 20km event in 1:20:38.

López, a former antinarcotics policeman, instantly became a national figure, but his story is yet unknown to many.

“I began practicing athletics at the age of twelve, mostly pushed by my father,” López recalls. “He was a race walker – not a very good one. He taught me the technique in one morning, and the next day I was already competing at a meet in Department of Nariño. I did well, and I got selected to compete at a national event.”

“Later on, my uncle took over as my coach. He always put emphasis in me having a normal youth, without being pushed by other goals. So, that’s basically how those years went. Then, in 1998, my father and my uncle decided that I had to leave my region, to move on to a new phase of my life where I would have better chances of becoming a successful athlete. That’s when I joined the police academy. Yet, my uncle continued to coach me until the year 2002.”

Police support proves critical

“In 2001, already a policeman, I decided to seek help to continue with my athletics career at the “Federación Deportiva Militar” (Military Sports Federation), which is part of the “Liga Atlética de las Fuerzas Armadas” (Athletics League of the Armed Forces). Two months after being part of it, I obtain the national title, and then I started to set marks of a higher level and to participate in more important events, such as South American Championships, Pan-American Race Walking Cups, Juegos Bolivarianos, Central American Games.”

“That evolution enabled me to compete at the 2004 Olympic Games, having already switched coaches to Luis Fernando Rozo, who is – as well as me – a policeman,” remembers López, who ranks as a police sub-inspector.

“We began working together in 2003,” recalls Rozo, a former race walker himself (1:25:40.3 at 20km and 4:27:23 at 50km), who has a ranking of police inspector. “I was the person who told Luis Fernando López to join the police. The athletes I have, who are also part of the police or the armed forces, are part of a program supported by the Board of the National Police. Fredy Hernández (Colombia’s top 50km Race Walker) is also part of that group. None of them serve now as policemen due to the privileges they have as top athletes, but Fredy used to work at a Division of Prevention of Juvenile Delinquency.”

“Nobody in my family had anything to do with the police,” continues López. “When I joined the police forces, I did it because I understood that the institution may be able to help me to achieve my dream of being an athlete of international level. My country – sadly – doesn’t offer many options and resources to support athletes in general, and that scenario made me seek the help in the police forces. Today, I’m very thankful to them, since they gave me important aid when I needed it.”

“After my graduation from the police academy, I become part of the Antinarcotics Unit in the southern part of Colombia, at the Department of Putumayo, where I worked for over a year and a half. In February of 2001 I became a member of the “Liga de las Fuerzas Armadas”, so, then I get relieved from those police duties.”

“The goal of the antinarcotics unit is to limit the flow and movement of cocaine in every possible way (air, water, ground)”, continues López. “I got destined to the terrestrial controls, searching vehicles in the roads that connected the south with the central region of Colombia. Luckily I had no dangerous moments – or incidents – in my duties. We know we were facing a ‘war’ against the drug trafficking groups, and in spite of the dangerous scenario that is the southern part of Colombia, I was lucky to never face a life threatening situation.”

Race Walking in Colombia grew in the 1980s when the Moreno brothers (mainly Querubín and Héctor) emerged. They reached important honours, such as Pan-American medals, top finishing places at World Cups, World Championships, and Olympic Games. Querubín left a personal best of 1:20:19 (when fourth at the 1987 World Cup), and Héctor still holds the Colombian national record at 50km (3:52:16), and 16th place at the 1996 Olympic Games.

“The Moreno brothers had marked the way for many Colombians in Race Walking,” explains coach Rozo. “But when they quit competing, there was a big space to fill. That was the moment when we traced the plan to develop race walking in a larger way. I can say that López is the most important name we have had in this new process, and we hope we can build better athletes after him, learning from all mistakes we have made so far, and trying to capitalise those lessons. We have also learned many things from the biggest icon we had in our area in Race Walking events, which is Jefferson Pérez. We have adapted the way Jefferson organised his training, his group of doctors, and the cycles of training in altitude.”

Living a dream

After López’s Olympic experience in Athens 2004 (24th with 1:26:34), he set his goal in trying to become one of the top races walkers on his continent, with the idea of later projecting himself to the world scene.

In 2005 López improved his personal best to 1:20:26 while finishing second at the Pan-American Cup in Lima, but then, he didn’t show further improvement until 2009. In that year, at the World Championships in Berlin, the Colombian finished fifth with a national record of 1:20:03.

By then López had had a ninth place at his second Olympic experience in Beijing (1:20:59), and was already part of the elite group at 20km. Yet, one of the highlights of his career would also come in 2009, but not in Germany.

“Before heading to Berlin, I was able to reach a great milestone. I had set the goal to walk in 1:20 on the track, and I accomplished that with great effort at the South American Championships in Lima. Walking in 1:20:53.6 meant that I broke one of the records that belonged to Jefferson Pérez. Jefferson happened to in Lima, watching the event, and that moment was huge; very symbolic for me, just like a dream. It gave me a great boost for the future.”

In 2010, López got himself even closer to a podium at a major event. Fourth place at the World Cup in Chihuahua meant that he was very near to the dominating forces of 20km.

“Something good was coming… I tried in Berlin, where I was fighting for a place in the podium until the 17th kilometre. I was one of the favourites to win in Chihuahua, but the ambition, and perhaps the pressure, pushed me to make mistakes in the final parts of the event. That cost me a medal. So, with all those lessons learned, I came to Daegu, feeling that it could be the last chance for me to reach the podium at such an event.”

However, things hadn’t gone well in his preparation for the 2011 World Championships.

“I developed a chronic injury, which slowed me greatly in training and put the whole season in jeopardy,” López remembers. “I found strength with the aid of my psychologist, because I knew that I wanted to be the protagonist of a historic moment for my country. At the race, I just wanted to be in contact with the leaders at all times. I was able to finish third after a great race, knowing that I could have been second, or perhaps closer to the winner. However, I fulfilled the goal of obtaining the first World Championship medal for my country.”

Confident as London approaches

“Coming to London, I feel very confident, knowing that I have been able to reach the podium in Daegu in spite of the injury I had. I don’t think about my rivals that much. I know that if I do my best, and I get to recover from my physical problems, I will be able to continue to build my career from the success obtained in Daegu. All I think right now is about 4 August 2012, at 17 hours, in London. I dream with that moment, and that’s where I’m focusing all my energies.”

“The medal obtained in Daegu is just the beginning. It also represented the fulfilment of a dream. Now, we must continue that in London. We will work very hard to be in the Olympic podium” said coach Rozo.

Eduardo Biscayart for the IAAF

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Luis Fernando López. Pasto (Nariño), 3 June 1979. 1.73m/60Kg.

Club: Liga Atlética de las Fuerzas Armadas

Coach: Luis Fernando Rozo

South American record holder at 10km Walk, and Colombian record holder at 20km Walk.

At 20km Walk: OG: ’04/’08- 24/9; WCh: ’05/’07/’09/’11- 12/22/5/3; WCp: ‘04/’06/’08/’10- 38/dq/23/4; PAmG: ‘03/’07/’11- 4/dq/3; SAmC: ‘05/’09- 3/1; SAmCp: ‘06/’08- 2/1. Second at 1998 South American Junior Championships at 10000m Walk.

Progression at 20km Walk: ’01- 1:26:31A, ’02- 1:26:47.6A, ’03- 1:25:09, ’04-1:22:52, ’05- 1:20:26, ’06- 1:24:11, ’07- 1:24:22.7A, ’08- 1:20:59, ’09- 1:20:03, ’10- 1:21:12, ’11- 1:20:38. Other PB: 10000mW: 40:33.87 ’03; 10KmW: 38:10 ’10; 20000mW: 1:20:53.6 ‘09